not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account. Spoilers follow.
I finally got around to reading this book after reading its sort-of sequel To Say Nothing of the Dog eight years ago, and a lot of the stuff I liked about Willis’s writing was already present in this novel: she’s created a form of time travel that seems optimized for creating page-turners, as the past and the future proceed along parallel timelines of equivalent length, allowing the author to jump back and forth between them as the story dictates. Combine this with the “end every chapter on a cliffhanger” principle, and you have a book that basically forces you to read through at top speed–you start out every chapter thinking “I’m going to get through this chapter so I can find out how the cliffhanger from the previous chapter resolves,” and then, if the author is doing everything right, by the time you reach the end of that chapter, there will be another complication you want to resolve. It’s an amazingly sturdy combination of plot elements, and Willis should get some credit for coming up with it.
As far as the actual stories go, though, she clearly learned a lot between the completion of this book and the completion of To Say Nothing of the Dog. While the later book is a completely filler-free romp that seems designed to end with you closing the book, looking at your bedside clock, and realizing it’s 4:30AM, there’s large sections of book here where nothing happens, nor seems in danger of happening. There must be a dozen chapters that involve Dunworthy walking around Oxford, trying and failing to find out anything. At first it’s not too bad, because Willis is good at creating funny characters and letting them bounce off one another, and it’s amusing to see it happen, but once I started figuring out things before the characters did, it became increasingly aggravating having to watch them spin their wheels for a hundred pages before they figured it out. This book is nearly 700 pages and feels like it could have been half that length.
The other issue, which is a little more fundamental, is that comic zaniness in the first half of the novel didn’t quite prepare me for the sudden turn to tragedy in the second half–the characters somehow felt too lightweight for me to feel very shocked or saddened by their deaths. When certain characters died, I realized that I didn’t actually have much of a sense of them as characters or people, and that they had functioned more as exposition devices than anything else, and that I still wasn’t sure how they related to the main characters. The basic science fiction conceit behind the book is strong, and despite dragging on a chapter-to-chapter basis, it remains fairly engaging sentence-to-sentence: Willis is an excellent crafter of straightforward prose. But I feel like, at this stage in her career, she wasn’t quite at the point where she could capture the sense of all-encompassing despair that the events she’s depicting would be expected to provoke.